The director of “Douchebag” and the new “Like Crazy” says make it hurt, forget the dialogue and get the actors to stop acting
Nine months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Drake Doremus's indie romance "Like Crazy" finally hits screens on Friday. And in the accelerated world of Doremus, that's an eternity — while waiting for the film to be released, the writer-director has already made another movie.
With a career spanning only three films, "Spooner," "Douchebag" and now "Like Crazy," Doremus has become something of a poster boy for personal indie films.
His calling cards: a common theme (his take on love and relationships) and a distinctive working process that involves co-writing (with Ben York Jones) detailed outlines rather than scripts — and then letting his actors improvise the actual dialogue.
The result, in the case of "Like Crazy," is the low-key, casual story of a romance that becomes strained when British student Anna (Felicity Jones) overstays her visa and is separated from her boyfriend Jacob (Anton Yelchin).
Based on long-distance relationships that Doremus and York both had, the film has largely drawn raves (Sharon Waxman called it "the simplest of stories, narrowly told, with great emotional impact"), though TheWrap's Alonso Duralde dubbed it "an irritating tale of twits in love."
Over the summer Doremus shot a bigger-budgeted "darker cousin" to "Like Crazy," with Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan and Jones in the leading roles. He hopes to have that film edited by the Spring – but in the meantime, he's back to talking about "Like Crazy," something he does with boundless energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm.
A conversation with Doremus keeps yielding his distinctive rules for indie filmmaking, so we've boiled them down:
1. WORK FAST
The schedule on both "Like Crazy" and his new movie worked the same way: Energized when they returned from Sundance after showing the previous film, he and York started writing, went straight into pre-production and had the movie shot by the end of the summer.
"I was ready to get back to work, and I had the story of 'Like Crazy' in my heart and in my head," he told TheWrap. "We pretty much spent February, March and April writing, May pre-production and June shooting. And then we were at Sundance the following January. So that all took place in about 11 months."
He laughed. "It's crazy that we did it like that. But I felt the same way after Sundance this year, and we did the same thing with the new movie."
2. NO PAIN, NO GAIN
Doremus admitted that "Like Crazy" is based on his romance and marriage to someone from overseas, though he has yet to reveal any details about his ex-wife, other than to say that she isn't British. (She's Austrian, and gave one interview to the New York website Metro in which she said the film draws liberally from their real relationship.)
"There were a lot of feelings that I had about the relationship that I wanted to explore in the film," he said. "And Ben had a long-distance relationship that was very similar. So we tried to do it honestly and openly. Not try to fabricate anything, but just explain how we felt."
And were there times when they felt as if they'd gotten too personal, and had to back off?
"Yeah," he said. "But that's when I know it's working, when I feel too personal and I have to back off. Or when it hurts too much. Even if it's darker and harder and more painful, it's important to try to go to those places to make a film, because otherwise it's just going to come across as false or disingenuous."
3. IT'S ABOUT WHAT THE CHARACTERS WANT, NOT WHAT THEY SAY
Doremus's working process starts not with a traditional script, but with what is essentially a piece of prose – in the case of "Like Crazy," one about 80 pages long.
"It's in short story format," he said. "It'll be like, 'Anna, frustrated, quips … ' And then there will be quotation marks and she’ll have a line. Mainly, we're focusing on where the characters are at in the story, on the backstory, and on clear character objectives within the scene. We want to make it clear what the characters want from each other and what's happening, but we leave room for spontaneity."
That "script" goes out to actors and agents and prospective financiers; the actors use it as a template for on-set improvisations that determine the actual lines.
"I actually feel that our scripts are more in-depth than normal scripts," he said. "Because there's so much backstory, so much knowledge about the characters. In a normal script somebody walks over here and says something, but you don't really know everything that's happening between the lines. Our outlines focus on what's going on underneath the surface."
4. GIVE THE BUSINESS PEOPLE TIME; THEY'LL COME AROUND
It's one thing to write scripts that don't look like scripts; it's another thing entirely to try to persuade agents, studios and financiers that those outlines will actually turn into movies.
"At first, some people we talked to felt it was more a lack of preparation than a process," he admitted. "The feeling was, 'you're lazy and you don't want to write a full script.' And now that perception has changed, for sure."
One key reason, he said, was the success of "Like Crazy" at Sundance. That film was financed by Indian Paintbrush, and picked up by Paramount at the festival; his new film was also done with Indian Paintbrush, and he expects a deal with Paramount as well.
"It's crazy the difference a year can make," he said. "I feel like I had the opportunity to make this new film alnost anywhere. People can see the outline, they can see the finished product with 'Like Crazy' and they can say, 'Okay, that's the process.'
"I think there's still a lot of work to do with actors, financiers, producers, but I've worked so hard over the last couple of years trying to solidify that process and gain that trust of the people in the business."
5. IF YOU HAVEN'T FOUND THE RIGHT ACTOR, KEEP LOOKING — EVEN IF YOU'RE ABOUT TO START SHOOTING
When he was preparing "Like Crazy," Anton Yelchin was the first actor cast. Felicity Jones, on the other hand, didn't arrive until "about a week and a half" before production was scheduled to begin.
"I'd seen 50 or 60 young actresses, looked at a lot of tapes, did chemistry reads with Anton," he said. "There were some good choices, but nothing that felt 100 percent right. There was one girl that was the best I'd seen with Anton, and we could have done it with her – but it would have been a very different movie, without the intimate sense of humor that Anna and Jacob have together."
At the last minute, Jones sent a tape of her performing the two scenes that Doremus had asked all his prospective actresses to prepare. But then, at the end of the tape, she added one more: a shower scene that comes late in the movie, in which, without words, the look on her face told the entire story.
"I saw Felicity's tape and I knew we had Anna," he said. "I called her at three o'clock in the morning in London and woke her up, because I had to make sure right away that she wasn't doing anything else."
And would Jones have been cast if her audition tape hadn't included that third scene?
"Good question," he said. "I'm gonna have to go with no. it was so bold."
He pauses. "But those first two scenes were great, and she was definitely the best. So … well, yes. She still would have gotten the part. But it wouldn’t have been as instant."
6. IT'S OK TO SCARE THE ACTORS
Doremus's process relies on things that aren't on the page, and pushes actors into areas that can be both exhilarating and frightening. They arrive on set without having blocked out the scenes and without knowing the dialogue – and Doremus arrives not knowing if the things that make sense to him on paper will work onscreen.
"I think if it wasn’t scary for the actors, we wouldn’t be doing something right," he said. "Once day four hits and the actors are in it, then you can see it change from 'What are we doing?' to 'Oh, this is how you make a movie,'
7. ACTORS ARE BEST WHEN THEY'RE NOT ACTING
David Fincher has famously said that he does 40 or 50 takes or more because he wants to wear his actors down to the point where they stop acting. Doremus doesn't have the time or money to do that many takes – but he tries to do the same thing, only more quickly.
"The first take is always a performance," he said. "And for me, it's a process of losing the performance. When the actors don't care and they're not trying to exert effort, amazing things can happen. It's when they're trying to achieve a moment, trying to achieve an emotion, it comes across as false. So the more takes we do, the better. By the time we do take eight, they’re tired of it and they don’t care anymore. That's when the emotion's effortless."
8. THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH SPENDING MORE MONEY
"Like Crazy," Doremus said, was made for $250,000. The new film is "somewhere under $10 million" – i.e., many times more expensive than anything he's ever done before.
And he likes that.
"I'm pretty comfortable around where we made the last one," he said. "That felt pretty good. It's still low budget, but it felt luxurious. We had 10 trucks, 100 people on the set …
"But it also felt like, let's just break it down, only use what we need, make it simple. Because filmmaking can get too complicated, and you can lose track of what's important every day. It's not about how many people you have on set, it's about telling these stories as effectively and as powerfully as you can. So it was a much bigger crew, but we maintained the intimacy by having eveyrone do what they needed to do, and then having them back off and keeping it intimate when we were actually shooting."